Editor’s note: Chronicle reporter Eric Schwartz and photographer Brandon Swanson are kayaking the full length of the Chehalis River from West Lewis County to Grays Harbor. They covered the stretch of from Rainbow Falls State Park to Claquato Friday.

By Eric Schwartz

    Claquato: It wasn’t a battle for the faint of heart.

    For almost an hour, we watched as a bald eagle circled its prey. The desired meal? A mother duck and her three young ducklings.

    The chase began this morning just downriver from the temporary Bailey Bridge that connects River Road with the greater Meskill, Doty and Dryad communities across river.

    In search of a decent picture of the bridge, which was put in place after the 2007 flood, Brandon attempted to shoot a photo of the eagle swooping over the bridge ahead of us.

    It soon became apparent the eagle had no interest in us, but rather the family of ducklings frantically fleeing downriver about 50 yards ahead.

    The battle of the birds was a stop-start affair. First, the eagle would swoop down toward the traveling ducks. And each time, he would come within feet of snatching up a duckling before ascending back into the treeline.

    This happened six or seven times before eventually the eagle backed off, though there is no way for us to know exactly how this bird brawl came to an end.

    Regardless of whether or not a duck lost its life or the eagle got a meal, the incident was one that I can definitely say would not have been possible to witness from the shoreline.

    It was a raw display of nature’s never-ending predator versus prey existence, and certainly a highlight of the first day of paddling.

Off and Running … or Sinking?

    The day started at the scattered debris of the Rainbow Falls State Park bridge at 8 a.m. The structure once led eager travelers from state Route 6 to the popular park, over the waterfalls for which it is named.

scattered debris of the Rainbow Falls State Park bridge at 8 a.m. The structure once led eager travelers from state Route 6 to the popular park, over the waterfalls for which it is named.

    That bridge was destroyed, along with two others within only a few miles, when logs and debris came banging through the canyon in December of 2007. Whole trees still remain, ripped from their roots, high above the waterline up and down the river.

    Others are submerged, and poke through the surface of the water creating hazards for those who would traverse the river — like us.

    We had our first formal run-in with the combination of swift current and rushing rapids early on. Brandon led the way through what appeared to be a mild rapid just before Ceres Hill Road at 11 a.m., before the South Fork of the Chehalis river joins the North Fork.

    I glanced away to select my own trajectory, and looked back at Brandon just in time to see him pinned against a log with water rushing over the opening of the kayak.

    Within seconds, he sank in the water as if his kayak was weighted with anvils.

    Brandon, more concerned with the vessel, held himself across the log with his chest and used his foot to keep the now-sunken kayak from rushing downriver.

    His quick thinking allowed me to grab hold while he got to shore. With a little pulling and prying, the kayak was removed and we were no worse for the wear.

    Welcome to the Chehalis River.

On to Adna

    After the spill we proceeded down the river, past the confluence of the South Fork of the River where the Washington State Department of Transportation is currently building a new state Route 6 bridge.

    From there, the river took us into the forest where we paddled alongside the Chehalis-Centralia Railroad Association Steam Train. The conductor blew the train’s whistle and the passengers waved to us enthusiastically.

    They were the only humans we saw on the river the entire day, save for a brief stop in Adna where we crawled from the river bank with the look of two men who had just been in a fight with a river and lost.

    But we are far from beaten, and our trip is a long ways from being complete. We logged more than eight hours of paddling and have gone from Rainbow Falls State Park, past Adna and into Claquato.

    This weekend we’ll continue down the river and begin taking in the slow-moving, serpentine Chehalis River most Twin Cities residents are used to seeing on a daily basis from Interstate 5.

    And the river rolls on.

Contact the Kayakers

    Do you have a story about how the Chehalis River has affected you? Would you like to meet up with our river voyagers as they travel downstream? Send an e-mail to reporter Eric Schwartz at eschwartz@chronline.com, or call Assistant Editor Brian Mittge at 807-8234. We’ll make sure Schwartz gets the message when he puts in at shore.

    Follow our team’s progress at Schwartz’s blog, The Fourth Estate, at www.chronline.com, or through Twitter at www.twitter.com/chronschwartz.

    Eric Schwartz: (360) 807-8245

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